Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) are four months into what has been heavily punted as a banner year for…
Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) are four months into what has been heavily punted as a banner year for them. CEO Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith stated at the end of 2013 that the label planned a full-length release from every act currently signed to their roster. That announcement had most frothing at the prospect of albums from Black Hippy crew Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock. Excitement was more muted, but still there if you listened hard enough, for their most recent signee, Solana Rowe, better known as SZA. As the first and (to date) only female on the label, she had made waves for more than just the fact of her signing. She was genre-bending and musically trendy and had two strong EPs to her name.
Z is her third release and her first under TDE. It falls (somewhat awkwardly) between an EP and a full-length; it was marketed as the second in a 3-part series of EPs (S, released in 2012 was the first, with A imaginably still to come), yet its 10-track, forty-minute running time puts it into longer-player territories. This wouldn’t even be worth noting if it weren’t for the fact that this lack of clear direction is broadly manifest across her latest release.
SZA has been rightly positioned on the seemingly endless wave of new RnB singers emerging through the ranks. The genre’s fabled journey from niche outsider music (so-called PBRnB) to its current point of mainstream oversaturation has passed into common knowledge. What marks the best of these artists is their insatiable appetite for new sounds, their ability to handpick the finest influences and reference points across sonic and cultural stylings and incorporate it into their version of RnB, so much so that much of it doesn’t end up sounding like more traditional RnB at all. SZA does this with the best of them, sampling entire beats from both Marvin Gaye and 18 year-old internet producer wunderkid, XXYYXX across the course of Z. She has cited influences as eclectic as Miles Davis, Lil Jon and Bjork. She can clearly hold up a conversation of “So who are you listening to?” with the best of them. Her problem, at least on this effort, is her inability to shore up these influences into something artistically coherent. The problem exists on a more macro-level, but even on the micro-level of individual songs she often struggles to turn her ideas into clear musical and artistic statements.
The album starts strong. ‘Ur’ is sparse, employing large expanses of space with her distant vocals swishing around. She has stated in interviews that she doesn’t write her lyrics down and instead prefers adlibbing at the mic. Anyone familiar with the career of Lil Wayne (so: everyone) will know that this tactic can be quite hit-or-miss when it isn’t employed by someone at the height of their powers. Her lyrical delivery occasionally comes across as stilted, but when it works, as on ‘Childs Play’, it echoes the timpani of spoken word poetry, and can be unguarded, revealing and beautiful. Chance the Rapper appears on this track and his verse interweaves seamlessly with SZA’s, overlapping in one of the album’s more on-point subtle touches.
Z employs features very effectively for the most part. Chance’s delivery is laidback enough to fit seamlessly with the hazed-out feel of ‘Childs Play’, but with enough gainful energy to propel it somewhere, giving it a sense of direction. “Only I know that a pawn is a trade / and a rookie for a castle like tuition for a final / Playin’ hooky for a tassle, spend a minute on the minor,” he raps, riffing on one of the album’s arc themes of youthful naïveté. Isaiah Rashad’s appearance also serves to enliven a song bordering on listless stasis; ‘Warm Winds’ opens with shades of India Arie over a Mac Miller beat, with the sounds of winds breaking the song into whispered prayers over a new beat and her and Rashad singing the hook simultaneously over ominous bass synths. It’s Kendrick’s appearance, however, that really brings things into sharpest focus. His verse, in the far less assured second half of the album, is confident, highly skilled and dexterous; but rather than prop SZA up, his presence serves to show just how far she still has to go in terms of self-assurance and -expression.
None of this is to say that Z is a bad album. In fact, when SZA gets it right, as on the endlessly catchy ‘Diana’, she emits the potential to be amongst the brightest there are. ‘Diana’ is one of the best pop songs of this young year, completely unabashed, melodic and joyful. Its opening 30 seconds sound like the purest definition of every good thing poptimism has wrought – sparkles and bells flourish in the background behind her powerful delivery, too many maximalist sounds colliding to parse out any specific one. On the jazzy Marvin Gaye-sampling ‘Sweet November’, she sounds smooth, on her game, cooing “Heard you fucking with Tommy again / Remember where that landed you last time / That nigga don’t really love you girl / He just beds you every night it’s his pasttime”.
But elsewhere her aimlessness is very apparent. Emile Haynie produces three songs on the back-end of the album and all three suffer similar problems. ‘Shattered Ring’ and ‘Green Mile’ struggle to sound seamless, their chorus and verse at an arm’s length from each other. The songs sound like little more than a concerted effort at reconciling the hook with the body, and ends up disjointed and flapping about. ‘Omega’ opens with church organs and a confession, in the same vein as Frank Ocean’s ‘Bad Religion’, but the comparison between those two songs has to end there. The song’s chorus is big, but she doesn’t appear able to allow the emotion she clearly feels and sings about to seep through the sonics. The track ends up not earning its catharsis, a benign version of Patrick Bateman’s “This confession has meant nothing”. And indeed, that is the problem with the album as a whole. There is no doubting that all the ideas are there. Ditto the influences and references. But now is the time for her to break through all of that and truly become who she is; her confessions need to mean something.